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Creative Restorative Justice

What is “restorative justice”? Those words are becoming more common in our conversations about criminal justice and even everyday interpersonal conflicts. Perhaps you’ve even heard of restorative justice as an approach to use when dealing with church conflict. The Office of Social Justice now even has a monthly newsletter called “Catching Stones” that points people towards resources to learn more about and practice restorative justice. 

The website for Correctional Service Canada defines it this way:

Restorative justice (RJ) is a philosophy and an approach that views crime and conflict as harm done to people and relationships. It is a non-adversarial, non-retributive approach to justice that emphasizes healing in victims, accountability of offenders, and the involvement of citizens in creating healthier, safer communities. The goal is to reach meaningful, satisfying, and fair outcomes through inclusion, open communication, and truth.

This perspective may seem radical applied to criminal justice, but it is not new, and it is really common sense and should hit a responsive chord, especially for Christians. Returning evil for evil just does not sound biblical; that doesn’t reflect what Christ would stand for. Yet a popular ancient notion of reciprocal justice has persistently dominated, and persists, in modern thought: simply put, “wrongdoers get what they deserve; evil due for evil done.”

Retribution has come to mean the formal state-applied-pain to the wrongdoer proportional to the pain inflicted by the wrongdoer. How does one measure pain and harm anyway? In this scheme, victims have little directly to say in the process, and the psychic-spiritual-social harm done to people and relationships is not addressed. Crime in this scheme is not essentially against the victim, but against the state. This perspective is not very inspiring, nor creative, nor does it bring essential healing and restoration. Restorative justice on the other hand has its creative innovative eye on the need for healing and for restored relations; shalom.

A creative hermeneutic is also required as we read the Bible in regards to the grounding for restorative justice. It’s all there of course, but over the centuries modern theories of justice based on rational choice, deterrence, and retribution, seem normal, and have become equated with God’s ways. A closer look at scripture already in the Old Testament, however, suggests John Hesselink, reveals a God that passionately desires to restore, not destroy, his image bearers. But we seem to have internalized a dualistic understanding of God’s righteousness as bifurcated from his mercy and love. But in reality God’s righteousness is his passion to restore. The God that meets us in the Bible is the God that saves, “…because he is righteous, not despite his righteousness.” (Hesselink, 1975, in Grace Upon Grace by James Cook, ed., Eerdmans).  

Likewise Nicholas Wolterstorff (2011, Justice in Justice Love, Eerdmans) more recently, asserts that Christ in every way has annulled the ancient reciprocity code. This has radical implications on how we regard retribution. God does not demand that evil be redressed with evil, but rather with love for the good of all; even the enemy of the state is the neighbour we love. Any punishment that is exerted in the intervention of injustice of wrongdoing must be for the good of the wrongdoer, not for evil. Punishment may not make the situation worse for the harmdoer by the harm done back to him or her.

The concept of punishment needs creative, restorative refocusing. Think for example, how the actions of a therapist are existentially perceived by the patient after a hip or knee replacement; the force of therapy can seem punishing, but essential it is for restoration not deterioration. Similarly, state intervention in cases of harm, oppression, and abuse, will seem like punitive punishment as it mandates an accountability that is often more demanding than simply doing time in jail; but it actually results in more engagement and healing for all those harmed and impacted by the crime. Hesselink suggests that God’s avenging (vengeance; Hebrew naqam; Greek ekdikesis Rom. 12:19) must be seen as “salvific”; thus restorative, not pay-back-revenge to get even. God’s ways are not the ways of ancient, or modern, inhumanity to man. God’s wrath thus is not so much to be taken as the opposite of His love. The apathy of neglect and detachment is actually the opposite of love, an attitude of, “Couldn’t care less what happens to the scoundrel!”  Rather, wrath is God’s passion, often in biblical narrative agonistically portrayed, in intervention, for the good of his image bearers, an urge born of His love and righteousness that none should perish.

Our modern criminal justice system labours under a public opinion that seems to desire the wrath of returning evil for evil and then some, with an added calculation of applied pain for good measure. However, I can testify, and there is much evidence, that long sentences do not deter and do very little good to restore the wrongdoer, or help the victims with their struggles of moving toward a return to normalcy or shalom. We need smarter, more innovative sentences, not longer, harsher sentences. Mandatory minimum sentences are simply on the wrong track, dehumanizing and unjust. The overuse of administrative solitary confinement in Canadian prisons also simply must stop! Having listened to the Incarnate Eternal Creative Word, we respond to a call to the ministry of reconciliation and shalom to openly and publically call our elected officials and public servants to change current practices that do more harm than good to society, disparaging the God given human worth of the most vulnerable and those considered the least desirable in society today. In Christ, our society’s moral maturity is measured by the well-being of the least, not by the prosperity and the unfettered self-interest of the greatest. What’s more, Canada’s own federal institution for incarceration (Correctional Service Canada) calls us to creative innovation. What more could we ask? 

[Image: Flickr user cynicalview]

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